As we approach finals season, exams loom in all our minds. In the midst of all-nighters and late-night food runs, it is worth thinking about the role exams play in our academic lives. At Yale, the grade-inflation discussion recurs every couple of years, but invariably fizzles out. Across the United States, and indeed, much of the world, debates are raging about standardized testing in schools. But many of these conversations miss the point. The real question is not so much whether to test or what grades to give, but what and how to test.
One fashionable approach in both K-12 and college education is the bite-sized “continual assessment” model. In plain English, that means weekly quizzes and multiple midterms, instead of a final exam. While this movement is well-intentioned, it can have negative side effects.
To begin with, constant assessment reduces opportunities for students to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When everything we write comes under the gaze of a grader, we are less likely to take risks which enable long-term intellectual growth. Struggling students have less time to catch up; cramming for quizzes takes precedence over the actual business of processing the relevant material. As a result, students are more stressed, but learn less.
By contrast, cumulative end-of-term assessments enable students to reflect on what they have learned as a whole. Students can draw connections between topics and ideas. They see the woods for the trees. Although reading and finals weeks may be stressful, students get more breathing room throughout the semester, along with the time and space to develop true mastery over the material. Be it a final paper, final project or final exam, students experience a greater sense of accomplishment.
What about the importance of constant practice? Indeed, it is vital for students to get feedback about their work throughout the course of the semester. But feedback does not necessarily entail grades. Ungraded exercises can serve the same function, allowing students to explore and experiment with the material.
A corollary of the shift toward shorter, regular assessments is the decline of the traditional essay. In its place are lower-order exercises like multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank items, map quizzes and identifications. Often, these modes of assessment simply test the ability of a student to regurgitate course material, leaving little room for independent thinking. Instead of developing analytical and creative skills, students spend time trying to memorize the last line in lecture, which might appear on the exam. And to compensate for the general academic parity across students, professors often end up using curves, creating a cutthroat learning environment.
In many ways, this is the underlying cause of grade inflation: It is not so much that students are being awarded excessively high grades as it is that they are not challenged in a way that yields a range of grades. This is especially true in a number of large introductory classes, where the attempt to create “objective” exams leads to exams that are objectively bad.
In the light of these drawbacks, the traditional essay provides numerous advantages. Essays challenge students to reveal their “best selves,” eliciting a range of responses that can be innovative and unexpected. Students can’t simply rely on study sheets; they actually have to think about what they have learned. Most of all, essays assess the skills which a college education should aim to impart — communication, analysis and argument.
This is not to say that alternative modes of assessment have no place. But instructors should be cautious when using them and must think creatively about their design.
Finally, instructors should consider getting a second pair of eyes to provide feedback on student work, be it another professor in the same department or perhaps an external expert. That way, students are not merely pandering to the whims of their professor or teaching fellow, and instead receive multiple perspectives on their work.
Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen any time soon. Effecting change in the academy is difficult, and any attempt to influence teaching can be construed as an impingement on academic freedom.
But a successful revolution in educational assessment would transform the Yale experience. It would improve learning and student life. As you take your final, ask yourself: Who examines the examination?
Jun Yan Chua is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .